Go back, in your imagination, nearly 1400 years.
See a boat leave the island of Mull, off the west coast of
Scotland, and head across to the smaller island of Iona. Among
the passengers were four children, three boys and a girl: the
fatherless and exiled children of Aethelfrith, Anglo-Saxon king
of Northumbria, recently killed in battle.
Why were they going to Iona?
There was an Irish monastery of Christian monks there, but
these children were not Christian yet. Indeed their father, who
was known as the 'Destroyer', had once massacred 1200 Welsh
Christian monks who had gathered to pray against his victory,
even though they were unarmed and defenceless. But the monks of
Iona received the exiles kindly, guarded them, taught them and
eventually baptised them.
We may imagine the monks talking zealously to the most serious
of the princes, Oswald, about the dark heathenism of the kingdom
that had been his father's. Possibly the growing lad Oswald
discussed all this earnestly with another of much the same age, a
young Irishman who was going to be a monk on Iona, whose name was
We don't know whether it really happened as we have imagined
it. But we do know that, however it happened, Oswald in exile met
the monks of lona, and that meeting was a moment of destiny. For
through that moment came the conversion of the greater part of
England to the Christian faith.
When Oswald decided to fight to regain his
father's kingdom the battle, at a place called Heavenfield, was
fought in the shadow of a big wooden cross erected by his own
hands, to show that he fought as a Christian against a
non-Christian foe. When he became king he turned naturally to
Iona to ask for a missionary to convert his people, and the monks
of Iona sent Aidan.
When Aidan arrived Oswald gave him free choice of land on
which to found his monastery and Aidan chose Lindisfarne. As this
was not far from 0swald's main "palace" at Bamburgh the king and
the new bishop could work together for the conversion of the
Like all Anglo-Saxon kings Oswald was a warrior. Like other
kings he expected to die on the battlefield, and so indeed in the
end he did. But unlike other kings, before he died Oswald had won
for himself the reputation of being a saint, and his death in
battle against Penda the heathen king of Mercia was seen as a
What is a Christian saint, if not one who lives a life of
love, first to God and then to man?
Oswald was a man of prayer, and this must have
been quite unusual among kings of his day. He used to get up very
early in the morning to pray in the hour before dawn. Bede tells
us he prayed so much that whenever he sat down his hands
naturally rested on his knees in an upturned gesture of prayer
and thanksgiving. Bede also tells us that his last conscious
thought was prayer for his soldiers, for as he fell in battle he
said, "God have mercy on their souls."
Oswald was a man of compassion. One of the best-known stories
describes how one Easter, when he was about to dine with Bishop
Aidan, a great crowd of the poor came begging alms. The king gave
them not only the food but also the silver dish, to be broken up
and distributed among them. Aidan was so moved by this generosity
that he grasped the king's right hand and exclaimed, "May this
hand never perish!" (And Bede tells us that it didn't, for in his
day the king's hand, which had been severed in his last battle,
was preserved in Bamburgh church!)
So great was Oswald's compassion for the sick that even the
earth on which he died passed on its blessing in healing so
people said; and not to human beings only. One day a horseman was
riding near this place when his horse began to feel great pain:
it rolled in agony on the ground, apparently dying, until it
happened to roll over the spot where Oswald had died. Then it was
immediately cured. lt's owner told the story at the nearest inn,
and the people there decided to take a paralysed girl to the same
spot. She was cured too. Then people began to take earth from
this spot to put into water for the sick to drink. So much earth
was removed that it left a pit large enough for a man to stand
in, says Bede. Further, when Oswald's niece wished to have his
body buried at Bardney Abbey in Lincolnshire, the monks there
were at first reluctant to accept it, as they looked upon the
Northumbrian overlords as no friends of theirs. But a light from
the coffin at night persuaded them to take it in, and when they
washed the bones and poured away the water they found that the
ground into which it had sunk had power to heal.
Bede gives us more stories. A sick man in fear
for his salvation drank water which contained a chip of the stake
on which Oswald's head had been spiked; the man got better and
reformed his life. A little boy at Bardney was cured of a fever
by sitting by Oswald's tomb. Power to heal was claimed also for
pieces of the cross which had been set up at his first victorious
battle, and moss from this cross was said to have healed a broken
arm. A plague in Sussex was stopped by Oswald's intercession, and
even in distant Germany Archbishop Willibrord recounted to St.
Wilfrid tales of miracles worked by some of Oswald's relics.
What do we make of all this?
Bede finds it not surprising, in view of the devotion and
compassion shown by Oswald in his life. Ordinary people of the
time found it not surprising, for they thought that a good and
powerful man was the same man after death, but nearer to the
source of goodness and power.
Why do we find it surprising?
History can tell us of King Oswald, one of the most powerful
of all the northern kings skilful in both war and diplomacy. Such
men do not find it simple to be Christian, beset as they are by
all the difficult decisions and ambiguities that face any man who
wields great earthly power. How much easier to be a Christian
bishop than a Christian king! But Bede's story invites us to see
in Oswald more than the king: to see the saint who gave his life
to God and the martyr who gave his death, and who therefore in
life or after death could be called on with confidence by those
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